Death is not unfamiliar territory for filmmaker Werner Herzog. He has explored the topic—and felt its very real threat—in several movies. In La Soufrière (1977), Herzog risked his own life (and his crew’s) to investigate a volcano on the verge of erupting; on-location shooting for the fictional film Fitzcaraldo (1982) posed life-threatening challenges (such as lugging a steamship over a mountain); and in Grizzly Man (2005), the director repurposed video footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, whose nature retreat ended with a bear attack, killing both Treadwell and his girlfriend. But nowhere in his career has Herzog dealt with death as honestly and frankly as in his latest documentary, Into the Abyss.
At times deeply sympathetic and at others chillingly sober, Into the Abyss investigates the moral complexities surrounding a real-life murder case and the subsequent execution of a man partly responsible for a heinous crime.
On Oct. 24, 2001, nurse Sandra Stotler, 50, was murdered in her home near Conroe, Texas. Two young men, 18-year-olds Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, were convicted of the crime. Burkett received life in prison, while Perry was handed a death sentence. Eight days before his scheduled execution, Herzog interviewed Perry, and the inevitability of Perry’s death casts a chilling, grave shadow over the conversation.
Herzog’s camera rolls on, subtracting seconds from the finite supply remaining of Perry’s life. The director’s relationship to the convicted murderer is perplexing, and through their talks one gets the impression that Herzog’s own moral worldview is being challenged.
Herzog states at the beginning of the film that he does not support the state’s right to execute anyone, yet he’s not advocating for Perry’s innocence. His interest in the case is not melodramatic, nor does he seem to want to create an exposé or enact real world change. Perry’s guilt isn’t questioned, and Herzog discusses the youth’s crime with the same sensitive objectivity he gives to Stotler’s daughter during their interview. One senses a profound sense of pity from the director, a lament for a senseless loss of life that, in the end, will only cost more lives.
Stotler’s daughter, after enduring the loss of so many family members to crime, disease or accident over the past few years, has given up answering the phone, afraid of what more bad news there may be.
Despite the solemn overtones, Into the Abyss is not without its moments of hope. The marriage between Burkett and Melyssa Thompson, who only met because she was hired to work on his court appeals, lends the film moments of lighthearted bemusement.
Viewers familiar with Herzog’s documentaries will notice the conspicuous absence of his characteristic voice-over. Herzog’s narration is typically filled with philosophical flights of fancy and bits of wry humor, but there is no such creative treatment—or manipulation—of reality in Into the Abyss. Herzog seems humbled by the graveness of his subject, and the resulting film is one of the most affecting and unique—not to mention human—works of Herzog’s career.
Michael Perry, subject of Into the Abyss. PHOTO courtesy of Werner Herzog Filmproduktion
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